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LAART GALLERY : ARTISTS DISCOVER HOME AWAY FROM HOME IN N.Y.

“In the art scene, there are only two places on Earth: Manhattan and not-Manhattan,” said Mickey Kaplan, a Los Angeles artist and founder of LAART, a cooperative gallery in New York City’s SoHo art district.

A group of artists not from Manhattan is getting exposure on the East Coast this month at the gallery, which specializes in showcasing Southern California art. Although LAART’s current exhibit is titled “New Work from Los Angeles,” eight of the nine exhibitors are Orange County residents.

“We didn’t call it ‘New Work from Orange County’ because no one in New York is going to know where the heck that is,” Kaplan said. “They might think it’s in Florida or Ohio. And we wanted to create a repetition factor by calling each show ‘New Work from Los Angeles.’ ”

Each month, LAART features 10 different Southland artists who pay a $670 co-op fee for the gallery space. (The gallery is run by Hansi Oppenheimer. Kaplan still lives in Los Angeles, but makes frequent trips to New York.)

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Artists currently exhibiting at LAART through April 30 are: Valerie T. Bechtol of Laguna Beach, Nixson Borah of Los Angeles (a former Fullerton resident), Ray Jacob of El Toro, Nancy Mooslin of Newport Beach, Suvan Geer of Irvine, Pat Sparkuhl of Laguna Beach, Jean Towgood of Huntington Beach, Carol Saindon of Newport Beach and William Riley of Capistrano Beach.

(Don W. Hendricks of Fullerton was forced to drop out of the show at the last minute due to health reasons.)

In phone interviews from New York, the artists discussed their reasons for exhibiting on the East Coast. All agreed that New York City is an important place for their work to be seen.

“One show in a SoHo gallery won’t make or break a reputation,” observed Geer, a founder of the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art. “But it’s a good chance to offer dealers a first-hand view of our work.”

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Borah, a professor of art at Fullerton Community College, agreed. “Dealers are interested in the slides of my work, but they always want to know where they can see the real thing in the city. Now I can direct them to the LAART gallery.”

Towgood, who works on large unstretched canvas, hopes to find museum outlets in New York for her work. “These canvases are too ungainly to just pop over the sofa. They aren’t very salable to individuals,” she said.

Jacob, chairman of the design department at Laguna College of Art, said what he values most about LAART is the opportunity it provides to see the competition in New York. “The main difference between the East Coast and the West Coast is the concentration of art and galleries. I have never seen this much art in one place on the West Coast,” he said.

Each exhibitor paid $670 for 22 feet of wall space to display his or her art for a month. Several of the artists also traveled to New York to attend the opening and contact art dealers.

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All proceeds from sales will go to the artist except for the gallery director’s 10% commission. Although none of the art had been sold by the end of the first week of the exhibit, Oppenheimer said traffic through the gallery and interest in the work “is definitely picking up.”

“It’s costly to do a show anywhere,” said Bechtol, an art instructor at Coastline Community College and Laguna College of Art. “I just hung a show at OCCCA (Orange County Center for Contemporary Art), and it cost almost $700 before I was through. It isn’t costing me that much more to show at LAART, and it’s probably going to do much more for my career.”

The artists take turns acting as curators for the exhibits. Each curator is responsible for locating 10 exhibitors and securing $6,700 to cover the gallery’s monthly expenses.

LAART’s April exhibit is dominated by sculpture created in Orange County.

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“We are getting a lot of interest from the dealers because we are from the West Coast,” said Bechtol, a sculptor. “Everyone likes to compare East and West Coast sensibilities. But we are very diverse as a group.”

Bechtol is displaying shields and pots influenced by African and Native American cultures. Many of her works incorporate cast paper, adobe, human hair and bones.

Borah said Indonesian and Indian shadow puppetry influenced his figurative wall pieces and free-standing sculptures.

Jacob combines brightly colored, painted wood and everyday objects to create what he calls a “post-modern” look. “I like to take everyday objects and create a blur of meaning--is it an art object or is it functional?” he explained.

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Mooslin’s sculptures are connected to electronic speakers so that musical sounds are generated when viewers walk by. Oppenheimer said the sound sculptures “created the biggest stir at the opening because they involved the audience.”

Geer incorporates the elements of sound and smell into her art, using wood, ash, mud, clay, grasses, stones and paper pulp to create what she calls “mini-environments.” Taped rustlings, whispers and whistling winds emanate from her installations titled “Wind Nest” and “Dwelling.”

Sparkuhl’s assemblage sculptures focus on social issues such as women’s rights, famine and nuclear waste, while Towgood’s oil-stick-on-canvas landscape drawings center on environmental issues.

Photographer Saindon submitted a series of sequential black-and-white photos of the sea hitting the shore. Riley said his drawings, based on haiku poetry, are similar to Saindon’s works in their concern with the passage of time and “the afterglow of the past in the present.”

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In discussing the diversity of the show, Kaplan said, “West Coast artists don’t really work in schools like the East Coast tends to do. Frankly, I am amazed at the variety of art coming out of Orange County. The level of work is so high. Here are these fetish pieces and mud and music coming out of what is considered traditional, right-wing suburbia.”

Oppenheimer, formerly employed at New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art, agreed that the show was among the most interesting she had seen from the West Coast. “If the quality in general is this good, I’m going to L.A.,” she said, laughing.

Kaplan opened LAART in February 1986, after experiencing the frustration of trying to get New York showings of his own work. The April exhibition is the gallery’s third.

“It’s difficult to get a one-man show in New York because there are so few galleries and so many artists,” Kaplan said. “I got so frustrated that I just went to SoHo and rented a gallery space. New York was pretty good to me, and I knew a lot of West Coast artists who wanted to show in New York so I thought, why not set up a co-op?”

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Whether the co-op can survive remains to be seen.

Kaplan figures that the $670-per-artist fee barely covers the monthly cost of maintaining LAART’s 2,000 square feet. He secured a year’s lease with two one-year options. So far, 60 artists have booked gallery space at LAART through July.

“That’s as far as I’ve gotten in signing up artists,” he said. “I still need 60 more. If I don’t get 60 more I have to pay for that space myself for the balance of a year. The success of the project now is at a critical point. It could go or fail. The bottom line of this whole project is to make artists aware that they can make a living with their own work if they are willing to work at it.”

Kaplan said his ultimate goal is to find corporate sponsors to pay the fees for artists selected to show at LAART.

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“For New York to be successful for artists, it can’t just be a one-shot thing,” Kaplan said emphatically. “You have to get in other New York shows. There is no problem with the level of art (in Orange County). It’s there. The hardest thing is creating communication between collectors and artists.”


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